Oh Come, Little Children
a dirt-brown bus, a bearded man, and a simple gift form an indelible Christmas memory
As soon as he reached the mile-long dining table, the little boy spotted a place setting with steel utensils, quickly grabbed spoon and fork and licked them, spending a generous amount of spit. No one was going to steal them now! He was lucky today to have arrived before the others. On most days, he was late and ended up with lowly aluminum tools despised by all. It was hard to win the race against all the older boys and girls. He had just turned five.
Suddenly a hatch opened in the monster’s side, and out jumped – Santa Claus! Yes, it was Santa Claus, crimson red suit and cap, landing his portly figure deftly in the snow, right on his black boots while the flying monster turned, climbed, and headed back to the horizon from where it had come.
After cleaning his plate of boiled potatoes, green cabbage, and marinated herring – no surprise here – he expected the usual dessert of plum compote. At the same time, he already relished the prospect of an afternoon in the yard, strewn with rubble – bricks, rusted pipes, half-burnt wooden beams – from the bombed-out back building, a dream of a playground! But there was no dessert today, nor any play in the yard. Instead he heard the snappy voice of the head governess: “Children, put on your coats, hats, and mittens and meet me at the entrance!” The boy went to his dormitory, found his things on the hooks lining the wall, especially his coat, which he loved – too big actually, but nice and warm. Joining the other children, he wound his way down the wide, creaky stairs to the main entrance. When the doors flung open he could see the swirling snowflakes, gleaming white in front of the matte dirt-brown side of a big bus. He had never seen such a big bus before, but wasted no thought as he clambered aboard. “Like our street cars,” he matter-of-factly concluded upon examining the seats and windows.
The ride seemed to take forever, up the hill leaving the big city in the bowl below. It stopped snowing, the sun glimpsed through as the glare of the fresh snow already turned yellow in the afternoon, and they still hadn’t arrived. Finally they reached the top of the bowl and were crossing a treeless plateau when the bus stopped. Now he could see three more buses lining up behind his, and out spilled all the children of his shelter home. The governesses motioned them to a cordoned-off big circle around which everybody was to assemble. To the little boy it looked like the arena of the Sarasani Circus that had visited town last spring, but much bigger and in the open. Would there be horses and elephants?
As the December cold began to creep in, the little boy began to wonder what this was all about. Even in his big coat he began to shiver. It helped, though, to be flanked by other warm bodies. He didn’t remember how long he had been waiting in the cold squished against the red rope when he began to hear a strange noise, a rhythmic thumping, an approaching staccato getting louder and louder, so loud that he had to cover his ears, and still he couldn’t see anything. Then a long shadow swished by in the evening sun, followed by an enormous bus arriving through the air. The chopping noise was deafening, the whirling disk on top of the bus stirred up a gust of wind that almost blew away the boy’s stocking cap. The flying monster headed straight toward the center of the circle but wouldn’t land, hovering instead some six feet off the ground. How was this possible? Despite the cold, the boy’s mouth was stuck wide open in stupefaction. Still, in all his astonishment he registered that the monster was of the same dirt-brown color as the buses.
Suddenly a hatch opened in the monster’s side, and out jumped – Santa Claus! Yes, it was Santa Claus, crimson red suit and cap, landing his portly figure deftly in the snow, right on his black boots while the flying monster turned, climbed, and headed back to the horizon from where it had come. Santa Claus held on tight to a big sack draped over his shoulders, and the little boy heard his baritone voice booming, slightly muffled by his gigantic white beard, “Ho ho ho, Kindurr, folgt murr!” (“Follow me, children!”) The little boy gave little thought to Santa’s strange accent – and since when does Santa Claus shout “ho ho ho”? – but he followed the other children who tried to keep up with Santa as he led the way toward a giant tent. This, too was new to the little boy; for him it was a big house made of fabric. Inside were endless tables and benches. “Setzt euch, Kindurr” (“Sit down, children”), shouted Santa. To the boy’s amazement, the tables were lined with red, green, and gold checkered paper cloths. Back in the children’s home the tables were bare. And then – could this be true? – women and men, all wearing crisp olive-green suits, brought trays with mugs of hot chocolate, accompanied by sweet crackers. And there were chocolate bars, and strange sugar sticks in twisted red and white color! “This must be heaven!” thought the little boy.
Just as he licked the last drop of chocolate from the inside of the mug as far as his tongue would go, Santa Claus passed by his table, reaching into his sack and placing a little doll with rolling eyes next to every girl and a little toy car next to every boy. The car was made of shiny blue metal, with rubber wheels and a wind-up key. A few turns of the key – it took all the force of the boy’s little hand – and the car would race across the table, reaching the edge ... “Stop, it’ll fall off!” screamed the boy’s inner voice. But, oh wonder, as if steered by an invisible hand, the car would abruptly turn around and shoot back to the other side of the table, just to turn back again! Never, ever, had the little boy seen anything like this! How was it possible?
He hardly heard the Christmas carols playing in the background. Had he paid attention, he would have wondered why he didn’t recognize them. Eventually, as the night fell, the children re-mounted the buses and were taken back to their home shelter.
The little boy was me. The city was Stuttgart, Germany. And the men and women in their olive-green suits, of course, were members of the U.S. Army, stationed there as part of the postwar occupation. On this cold December day in 1954 I experienced my very first encounter with Americans. It must have been one of their finest hours.